Non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures, are just as vital as speaking when it comes to real-life language use

Speaking without words: optimising your target language with non-verbal communication

Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.

However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.

Unpolished Polish

My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.

Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.

Thrifty speaking shortcuts

You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.

Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like somethingsomeone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like …like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.

Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.

If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!

Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.

Not just crutches

The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.

These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.

Like climbing a mountain, making the most of your language lesson involves preparation!

Acing preparation for a good one-to-one language lesson

I’ve attempted Icelandic a few times in my life. That sounds ominous, that ‘attempted’, doesn’t it? Well, the truth is that I’ve found the language a real challenge each time. I’ve usually learnt it in the lead-up to a trip, then put it to bed for a while after my return. But last year, I decided to collect together the fragments of multiple start-stops and have a proper go at learning it upp á nýtt (back from scratch). 🇮🇸

Now, Icelandic is still extremely challenging to learn. I’d put it on a par with Russian for grammatical complexity, with the added downside that there is very little commercial material for learning the language. And I am far from the perfect student, squeezing my learning in here and there – and, perhaps ill-advisedly, learning several other languages at the same time.

However, over these past few weeks, I feel I’ve turned a corner. This week in particular, I had a one-to-one conversational Icelandic lesson on iTalki. And guess what? It actually went quite well! I’m not fluent by a huge stretch. But I stumbled, faltered and ummed and aahed just a little bit less. For the first time in forever, I feel I can actually speak Icelandic (after a fashion!), and not just rattle off phrases, parrot-style.

In this post I’ll look at how good preparation helped me to get the most from that lesson. I’ll also consider how that preparation could have been better, to squeeze even more out of my hour of speaking time.

Getting started

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I like to sketch out a few broad topic areas with rough vocabulary notes before a lesson. These topics are generally things I’ve been up to since the last session: travel, work, family / friends news and so on. For this lesson, I chose three: commuting to London, booking a trip to Iceland, and how I’d been practising Icelandic in the meantime (finding interesting articles online to translate).

I try to stick to a few rules in these pre-lesson notes. For example, complete sentences are out. Instead, I’ll write out vocab items and partial phrases, avoiding the temptation to create a script to read from. The aim is spontaneous(-ish!) conversation and flexibility as a speaker, rather than rote production of phrases. (Sidenote: there is definitely a place for the latter, especially in the very first stages of learning – Benny Lewis in particular has produced some brilliant guidelines on using scripts as a complete beginner.)

Sample preparation sheet

Here’s my prep sheet for this week’s lesson (complete with notes I scribbled during the lesson itself!). I typed it up in Evernote, then printed it to scribble on during the lesson. (Fellow Icelandic learners, please don’t use this as a learning resource yourself, as there are bound to be errors in it! It is really just my personal, rough scaffold for chatting, warts and all.)

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Because I already have a basic level in the language, the notes are slightly more complex or specific words and phrases to fit around that. In some cases it is brand new material, like “eins mikið og hægt er” (‘as much as possible’). I try extra hard to fit these in, as I’m more likely to memorise them through active usage. Other items include conversation cues, or main points of a story I want to tell. These simply keep me speaking and prevent the conversation from drying up.

This approach works a treat for me. It gives the start of the lesson a focus, so we can get right into it. It also provides the teacher with a lot of student-produced language – perfect for getting your grammar tweaked and vocab suggestions thrown your way.

Room for improvement

Of course, nothing is perfect. One shortfall was my lack of subject material. I’d managed to prepare three general “things I’ve been up to” sections, but started to struggle for novelty after 20-25 minutes, repeating myself a little. That wasn’t a problem, as there are always alternative activities to do in a lesson. But perhaps five or six rough prepared subjects to chat about would have bridged the gap.

Also, what you can probably tell from my notes is that I don’t always follow my own advice about brevity. Some of my lines are almost sentences. Not only that, but they tend to read in a slightly linear way. Like a script, an order is implied: I did A, then I did B, then C happened, then D will happen. I didn’t leave myself much room for improvisation.

Now, I wasn’t robotically reeling of those sentences in that exact order. But in future, I could make them even more efficient. As they are, they’re a little more fixed and restrictive than I’d like them to be. As a Social Sciences student, I found Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping techniques a fantastic support in note-taking; I think they’d work a treat in this scenario, too.

More than just the lesson

Lastly, what I haven’t mentioned above is all the other prep you do between lessons. The one-to-one hours are just single, brief points in your language learning schedule. Between lessons, you have to make a success of self-directed, wider learning, too. As I mentioned above (and in my chat notes!), I’d been a good student that week. I’d actively vocab-mined and exposed myself to lots of Icelandic in use by seeking out and translating online articles. (Nothing high-brow, mind – most of them were about the twists and turns in Iceland’s journey to pick a Eurovision song!)

No lesson is perfect (since no student is!), but I enjoyed this one and got a lot from it. Not every lesson goes so well, of course. Time is the biggest constraint on prep, and I’ve lost count of the occasions I wish I’d spent more of it on getting ready. Without exception, the better prepared you are to use language actively in a one-to-one, the more rewarding it is.

Learning multiple languages CAN be as simple as putting together coloured blocks!

Tackle multiple languages by blocking your time

I am a language hog. I’m eternally curious about them, and genuinely love studying them. So, I’m often actively learning multiple languages at the same time.

However, advice on learning multiple languages usually suggests plenty of caution and good planning. Now, you can be over-cautious; some suggest avoiding languages that are quite closely related, such as Norwegian and Icelandic, or Polish and Russian. However, I find that sometimes, this can actually help.

But overstretching yourself – however fun the activity – is a recipe for burnout. And, I’ve found, successful study sessions in a foreign language require a bit of conscientious preparation. You have to get in the mindspace for that language. At the very least, you need to (re-)activate your existing knowledge and plan to have something to say.

Because of that, few students will learn effectively by cramming three or more different languages into back-to-back study blocks on the same day.

Multiple languages pile-up

The problem was this: when I first started taking online lessons on iTalki, I had a tendency to spot any free time in my diary and fill it up. A sucker for punishment, you might think; rather, kid-in-a-sweetshop syndrome! So many languages, so little time…

For all busy people, it’s very tempting to do this. A free afternoon on Saturday? Squeeze in your German and Spanish. Only have one free evening in the week? Schedule three different language classes in it to make sure you’re getting your practice.

Nonetheless, this was a disaster for me. The result was always the same – I’d do well in the first class, then struggle to switch mindset for the following ones. I noticed the problem even when I left slightly longer, like a single day, between lessons. And, frankly, it’s a waste of the money to spend money on lessons and not be able to do the best you can in them.

Language blocks

However much I wanted to chop and change, it was necessary to create some separation. This way, at the very least, I could give each language a fair allocation of my time and energy. To this end, I’ve used trial and error to find an approach that works. And the trick, I’ve found, is spacing different languages into learning blocks of a few days.

What I do now is to carve my time into blocks of learning. Each one leads up to the big lesson ‘event’, where I can practise what I’ve learnt. Importantly, as much as possible, I keep each different language lesson separated by at least a couple of days on my calendar. In effect, you are spending your block working up to the pinnacle, which is the face-to-face lesson.

Short, sweet and focussed

It’s probably best not to make the blocks too long; two to four days working on a language is probably optimal before you cycle to the next one. You don’t want any one language to have too much downtime. But for those few days, ensure that your all your active learning is focussed on the single language.

The exception to the rule is with your languages in maintenance mode. These require less fresh learning and intensive vocab prep. For example, German and Spanish are my degree languages, and my strongest; therefore, I’ll pop a Spanish or German class on the same day as an Icelandic or Norwegian one – but never an Icelandic and Norwegian one on the same day.

Finally, it’s important to ‘sign off’ properly after you finish a block. For instance, I write up my lesson notes, add new vocab to Anki and spend some time putting any new vocabulary into example sentences. Tying it all off nicely after the big event is as important as preparing for it.

Why limit yourself?

If languages are your joy and passion, then why limit yourself? It’s true that you may well learn more quickly if you concentrate on a single one. But if you are a language guzzler, like me, then timing tricks like these will help keep you satiated, while still squeezing the most from your lessons.

Notebook for note-taking

Conversation turbo-boosting with speaking bingo sheets

I’ve been having something of an iTalki renaissance lately. iTalki, if you haven’t come across it already, is a website that connects language learners with teachers all over the world for online lessons. There are few easier ways to get some face-to-face tuition from a native speaker. And it is perfect for getting some conversation practice in.

Conversation is king

If you’re working on languages beyond entry / A1 level, general conversation is an important part of any lesson. For me, the best kind of iTalki lesson is one split between general chat in the target language, and structured learning. The latter can be organised through a grammar or textbook agreed with the tutor. But conversation is vital, being a safe space to practise the end goal of language learning: real-world communication. However, it’s daunting, and one of the biggest leaps of faith (in your own ability) to make.

Although lesson prices can be very reasonable on iTalki, they do mount up. But, somehow, I felt wasn’t getting the best value out of my lessons. It was nothing to do with the actual teaching. Rather, it felt like I was lacking a bit of dynamism on my part. And it was all to do with those conversations.

This is getting awkward…

I’d arrive in the Skype chat like a blank slate, ready to be instructed; a passive but eager student. But an hour is a lot of time to fill, one-to-one. Often, gaps would open up. Teacher and student would both be stumped for what to say next.

A bit of panic would sometimes fill these gaps, as I’d mentally grasp about, frantically thinking of something to say. A counter-productive instinct kicks in; the need to say something interesting, along with the realisation that the vocabulary for it is simply not there yet. In my floundering, something pops into my head in the target language, but I realise I already said it two minutes ago. I think of something else, but it won’t come out intelligibly as I lack the vocab or structures for it. Agh!

This kind of thing, if you’ve experienced it, can be really disruptive. It can trigger that spiral of confidence-eroding self-doubt, too. I hope I’m not a boring student… Am I really good enough to be trying to converse in X/Y/Z? The teacher must be reconsidering my actual level right now…

Just wanna be loved

First things first: it doesn’t mean you’re a bad linguist. Wanting to converse interestingly and fluently is a perfectly normal goal as a human being. It is connected to our basic need to be liked – which, when it all gets too much, can tip into neurosis. Psychology Karen Horney, for example, theorises it as one of the ten ‘neurotic needs’ that can be problematic when they get out of control.

We’ve all experienced it in our day-to-day conversations in our native languages – awkward pauses and strange silences with people we want to impress.

But I needed to stop this from making my lessons less effective. I needed a crutch. What I needed was a crib sheet of vocab and phrases to use in my classes.

Speaking bingo sheets

Now, crib sheets on themselves can be rather dull. To spruce up the concept, I decided to add an element of gamification.

First, I sketch out the words and phrases I want to focus on this week in conversation. They could be items that I’ve come across in my reading, or listening to podcasts. They might also consist of vocabulary I’ve looked up to describe things I’ve been up to that week, or topical items from the news.

Then, crucially, I’ll put a tick box next to each of them. 

During the lesson, I have my speaking bingo sheet in front of me. As I converse with the teacher, I make an active effort to use my words and phrases, and tick them off as I do. Obviously, conversation is organic, and I won’t have chance to use them all. But the unused ones can go onto the next lesson’s sheet, and the process continues.

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

 

Don’t overscript it

Speaking bingo sheets shouldn’t be rigid, like a script. The aim is to support more natural speech through a set of cues. For instance, you might note down a central theme – I used ‘Remembrance Day’ in a recent Polish example (above) – and spider off some related words like ‘war’, ‘army’, ‘parade’ and so on.

In terms of phrases and language patterns, a frame or scaffold approach works best. This kind of technique is very popular for literacy in schools, but it works a treat for speaking lessons too. One example might be to have the phrases ‘I went to…’, or ‘I am going to…’ ready on your sheet to use several times with different vocab slotted in.

I also find it useful in the early stages to have a list of general opinion phrases that you can slot in anywhere. Just simple reactions like ‘great’, ‘terrible’ and so on. Also, ‘I (don’t) agree’ is a good conversation keeper-upper!

Why it works

We reinforce linguistic memories through usage, and through positive and negative associations that give them salience. To capitalise on that, you should fill your bingo sheets with favourite turns of phrase and interesting vocab you really want to ‘stick’. It sounds trivial, but if I feel proud of myself for working in a lovely, colloquial phrase like mér finnst það gott! (I like it!) into an Icelandic lesson, I’ve reinforced that vocab item with a positive emotional association.

Give them a go!

Speaking bingo sheets have really helped me to get the most out of my iTalki lessons. It’s part of being a well-prepared student (and a well-prepared teacher certainly deserves that!). Now, if I don’t use them for whatever reason, I really notice a difference.

Give them a go – and enjoy the flow!

Real-life language can be unpredictable, like this tangle of colourful liquorice sweeties!

Preparing for the unpredictable – developing flexible language thinking

We’ve all been there. You’ve learnt the tenses. Have the vocab down pat. You have a head full of model questions and answers. You are totally ready for to be unleashed onto the target language streets. But – agh – what was that answer that came back at you? What was that word again, and why can’t you remember it now? And why is this so much harder than when you were learning it? Conversation so often doesn’t stick to the script, and we can be totally thrown by the responses to your perfectly practised communication attempts. Real life is just so darn unpredictable!

Well, rest assured that it isn’t just you. There is a psychological phenomenon dubbed ‘context reinstatement’ that explains just what on Earth is going on. It’s a fancy name for something many of us intuitively know anyway – that being perfect in a learn-and-drill situation does not prepare you for the unpredictability of real life.

Underwater understanding

Classic memory research by Godden and Baddeley shows how we find retrieval easier when the context is the same as the original learning environment. The psychologist duo split their subjects into two groups. One group learnt a list of 40 words underwater, and the other group learnt them on the beach. Then, they tested each participant’s recall of the words in either the same, or the alternative environment.

The result? On average, subjects remembered 40% more when tested in the same environment that learning took place in.

The lesson from this is not – disappointingly – that we should all buy scuba gear and go and learn languages in the water. Rather, we can assume that vocabulary and structures will be easier to recall in a classroom if they were first learnt in a classroom. The familiar surroundings contain lots of cues, networked to those original memories, that help them bubble up to the surface. This explains why you may perform brilliantly in a vocab test in class, but struggle to find a word in a shop or restaurant in your target language country.

Context – a blessing and a curse

Superficially, the effect of context on recall can sometimes be a useful tool. If you want to improve recall, then you can attempt to recreate the environment where you first learnt the material. Taking a French/German/Spanish exam? Then take in some familiar objects, like your favourite pencil case or pen. Maybe sit in the same desk for class tests, or even wear the same clothes. There really is some psycho-science behind having ‘lucky’ clothes in this case!

The trouble with extending these techniques is the impracticality, or often, sheer impossibility of them in real life. In reality, we have very little control over scenarios where we want to speak a foreign language! Language happens anywhere and everywhere – by its nature, it is unpredictable.

Training for the unpredictable

So, how can you prepare yourself for, literally, anything that could happen in a target language situation? First off, nobody will be able to do that. That is half the fun and excitement of speaking foreign languages – it’s a rollercoaster ride of social surprises. But you can increase your chances of coping well with that. The trick is to promote flexible, rather than fixed thinking in your learning routines.

Vary your study settings

There is a common study tip based on busting the context-dependency of Godden and Baddeley’s experiment. It is, quite simply, to vary the environment that you learn in. In theory, this prevents specific language memories from becoming too attached to elements that won’t be present in the field.

You can extend this idea of  ‘environment’ to the whole ecosystem you use to learn – the apps, websites and materials that you form your learning materials. Find yourself exclusively using Duolingo to practise languages? Then give Anki a try, and build some custom vocabulary lists. Only using fixed listening material from language courses? Then maybe it’s time to try some podcasts. Take the predictability out of your learning, and you may increase your ability to cope with it in the real world.

Fluid notes

It’s also worth addressing how you keep your phrase lists, crib notes and vocab records, too. A rigid, fixed, linear structure to memorising dialogues, for example, leaves little room for digression in actual conversations. A static list of ten words that you learn in order will, likewise, not really promote flexible use in the day-to-day.

Instead, think about creating frameworks for your vocabulary instead. Rather than complete sentences, learn structures that you can fit many different words into, depending on the situation. I should have…I’ve already … and so on – frames you can grab and fill in your head on the go.

Recycling material in different ways is key here, too. Maybe learning discrete lists of ten words is an effective memorisation technique for you. Stick with that if so, but introduce some variety to the way you practise them. Run through the words in a different order – maybe using a flashcard app like Anki – and challenge yourself to make different, even whacky, sentences with them each time you revise. Mix it up – make sure that no learning session is the same.

Speaking is supreme

Finally, books and static materials will never suffice for training for the unpredictable. Even the immersive, language-in-situ nature of podcasts won’t mimic the two-way dynamic of real-life conversation.

For that end, the old adage always applies: speaking is supreme in language learning. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of iTalki for face-to-face language practise. I’ve been finding lots of extra time for regular Skype lessons, simply to chat with a real person. It can be hard, and it’s natural to feel an aversion to difficult things and hide from them. But if you stick at it, you’ll reap the confidence rewards of coping better and better with natural language.

Embrace the unpredictable

Human beings are creatures of habit, and love routine. That’s why these techniques might sometimes feel so hard to adopt, even though they seem like common sense. It can be disconcerting to mix up your learning approaches ceaselessly, or throw yourself into environments where you are tested on the spot. But in the long run, you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace change and variety, and become a more dynamic linguist for it!

A man lying on the grass - a great anxiety buster!

Just chill! Anxiety busting tips for practical language use

French was never my forte.

Still, I recently had the opportunity to use my French again after years of neglect. I’ve long jibed about my French being rubbish, basic and broken. Doing my French down has become a running joke in my life. Despite hitting an A grade in GCSE French at 16, I’ve done little to keep it going since. In fact, some of the only occasions I’ve used it have been to speak what I call ‘comedy French’ in the office. That’s 25 years of francophobia!

Still, a language is a language, and I was happy to dig out the French on a recent trip. I didn’t expect miracles, and was pretty lazy about polishing up my skills before travelling. You could say that I didn’t really care much about being ‘good’; the bit I had was enough. Zero expectations, zero anxiety.

Language magic… When you least expect it

Surprisingly, a bit of magic happened on that little trip. Somehow, despite my insistence that my French was ‘rubbish’, I was communicating. I was asking questions and understanding the answers. And after mulling over some explanations for that, I’ve learnt some important things about practical foreign language use.

The crux of it is this: I went about the everyday speaking French and not caring about being perfect. Not pressuring myself to be grammatically flawless, not demanding native-level, colloquial phrases from myself. I knew what I knew, and I would make it work for me, regardless of the gaps. I was even making up phrases that would turn out to be correct later on, like ‘en ce cas‘ (in this case).

Performance anxiety

Now in my strongest foreign language, German, I never experience that kind of friction-free movement. I have a degree in German; I’m supposed to be great at it, darn it! So, as a result, I place a huge pressure on myself to be perfect. It’s nearly always an impossible challenge at the best of times, and not surprising that it leads to language anxiety. I’ll beat myself up over even the silliest mistakes and trip-ups.

Not only that, but it dawned on me that I’ve been taking my German far too seriously over the years. Just compare: in German, I regularly listen to heavyweight news podcasts. In French, on the other hand, I have fun in the office saying silly things to make my colleagues laugh. Which one seems like a better way to build a positive experience in a foreign language by stealth?

Just chill!

Now the answer here is not to disengage from serious study or stop caring about a language. However, there is something in this French lesson that can benefit our ‘proper’ languages. You can boil it down to two rules:

  1. Don’t worry about mistakes – just communicate.
  2. Have fun with it!

Common sense, perhaps; oft-repeated, definitely. But extremely easy to forget when a language means a lot to you. Let this post be a reminder to me of that – and, I hope, a signpost for others to ward them off that anxious path!

Amazon Echo Dot - Alexa for Language Learning

Alexa: Your Personal, Digital Native Speaker

It’s a language learning ‘secret’ that isn’t so secret any more: changing the language setting on your smart devices is a brilliant way to create a personalised immersion environment without going abroad. And the recent explosion of artificially intelligent digital assistant devices is taking this one step further. Voice-activated gadgets, like Amazon’s Alexa, place a (robotic) native speaker right in the centre of your home.

Swayed by the temptingly low price on the entry-level Amazon Dot, I’ve been getting to know Alexa for the past few months. First off, it’s a cliché, but this is definitely the kind of gadget you ‘never knew you needed’. After eyeing the unit with some cynicism for the first few weeks, soon I was constantly asking it to play music, convert currencies and measurements, tell me the weather forecast or simply the time. It’s both easy and fun, and gives you that sense of the future is now!

You digital language assistant

But it’s not just about voice-activating mundane, daily tasks. Ever alert to new learning opportunities, changing Alexa’s language settings was top of the list of experiments to try. And it works a treat, especially for pronunciation; suddenly, I was having to focus intently on expressing my commands in a nice, clear German accent so that Alexa could understand. (Incidentally, I’ve also found switching the language of Apple’s assistant Siri has these great pronunciation drill benefits!)

Interacting is as simple as asking a question like “”Alexa, was sind die Nachrichten?” (Alexa, what’s the news?) or “Alexa, wie ist das Wetter heute?” (Alexa, what’s the weather like today?). For more capabilities – including lots of silly (but briefly entertaining) games – there are hundreds of extra installable skills on Amazon. A useful hit list of the most useful can be found here.

The only snag with Alexa is that it is currently only available in English or German. Great news for Germanists, who won’t feel underrepresented in the language learning world for a change; but a pretty large black hole for everyone else.

Skilling up Alexa as language tutor

However, all is not lost. Users can still download Alexa Skills from Amazon, which augment the device’s capabilities. Already there are a good number of language learning skills, although they vary greatly in quality. It’s clearly early days for the device in terms of educational skills, but the start is promising.

A simple search on Learn Spanish or similar will yield plenty of results for you to try out. Here are a couple of links for the more mainstream languages:

Feedback ranges from decent right down to downright terrible on some of the skills available. However, the facility to give feedback on Amazon is a route for users to shape and improve Alexa as a language learning tool. Try new skills out, and write an honest review for each one – your thoughts will help developers to tweak and adapt Alexa skills for an incrementally better experience.

Watch this space

In summary, Alexa is an excellent investment for Germanists, but hit and miss for students of other languages – at least for the time being. There is a sizeable clamour around Spanish support on Amazon’s developer space, with pressure for other languages too. It would only seem a matter of time before she becomes more than just bilingual.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.

A row of fitness bikes for physical engagement in the gym

Let’s get physical: Language learning through fitness

If you subscribe to one of the many theories of learning styles, traditional classroom or book-based language learning might seem a bit unimaginative. They hit all the familiar targets: visual, auditory – tactile, even, if you use devices or props like Talking Dice. But one kind of learning – kinaesthetic, or physical, movement-focussed – seems conspicuously absent.

Movement can be fun. And sometimes, it seems that kids get all that fun. There are already schemes that pair physical movement with language for young learners, like 5-a-day.tv. In the style of a fitness video, target language is inserted into the routine so the kids have fun moving, and learn at the same time. By all accounts, these techniques are really effective motivators in the primary language classroom. So why shouldn’t adults have a go, too?

Like a superset at the gym, you’re combining two activities here for maximum efficiency. Rather than body blitz and more body blitz, though, these technique engage your body and brain together. Two for the price of one – never a bad deal, and the very essence of hacking your learning!

Get physical with YouTube videos

One of the best things about YouTube fitness videos is that you can follow along even if you don’t grasp every word. Finding them is just a case of trawling YouTube search with some choice keywords in the target language. You could try ‘ejercicios en español’ or ‘Fitness auf Deutsch’, for example. Here are some of of the stand-out channels and playlists I’ve found:

French

German

Spanish

Some of them seem quite gender-specific, but there should be enough variety on YouTube to cater for every taste.

Videos too complex for a class you’re teaching? Maybe devise a simplified routine using parts of the body and direction words, for example – it could make a nice three-minute warm-up to a lesson.

Filling empty time at the gym

If you go to a gym regularly, you’ll be familiar with ’empty time’. It’s those minutes while you’re on a treadmill or machine, robotically repping out your exercises with the brain otherwise disengaged (or in daydream mode).

It’s easy to think of ways to fill this with language learning, and you most likely already do this if you gym – podcasts, foreign language music and such like. But there are other ways to push yourself too, not always necessitating headphones. Great if you find you’ve left them at home when you get to the gym!

Treadmill challenges

Last year, I realised to my horror that I knew loads of Norwegian vocab – but was rubbish at numbers. To be honest, it’s something I hear a lot from other linguaphiles – numbers are dull, boring, everyday kinds of words that just aren’t interesting to spend time learning.

Well, cue the treadmill and some creative gamifying! I find that the rhythm of a moderate jog – that regular thud-thud-thud of your shoes on each tread – is a great timer for some self-testing. I challenged myself to say (under my breath, I’m not an attention-seeker!) a certain number pattern to that rhythm.

For example, I’d start simple and practise 1 to 20 in order. Then I’d switch to recalling them backwards, from 20 to 1. After then, I’d do the tens, then I’d do even numbers up to 50 or so, then odd… There are myriad variations to keep your otherwise disengaged brain occupied.

And the great thing about it is its mindful nature; as you practise, recall becomes almost automatic, and the physical exercise almost easier as your focus is not on getting tired, but reciting your numbers. Very Zen.

More than just numbers

You can adapt this technique to any vocab item. Pick a topic – colours, say – and challenge yourself to say a new, non-repeated word on every footfall. Take it beyond single words – talk about yourself, or tell a story, with a word every tread. Great for practising connectives like ‘and’, ‘then’, ‘but’ and so on, as you form super-long sentences while you work out.

No gym? No worry!

You can take the principle of these ‘footfall challenges’ into any setting. Walking to the shops? Practise your numbers 1-20 as you go. Climbing the stairs? Count them in your target language. It’s a great way to make use of time when you’d otherwise be thinking about nothing in particular.

App coaches

There are hundreds of fitness apps available for mobile devices these days. Every aspect is covered, from nutrition to health monitoring and fitness coaching. Thanks to localisation – the inclusion of alternative languages into app interfaces – you can also enjoy some language practice every time you use these.

Most of the time, accessing foreign language interfaces in your fitness apps requires that you switch your phone’s operating language to the one you’re learning. Scary, I know – but it’s a brilliant technique to increase your immersion in a language generally. My phone has been speaking to me in Norwegian for the past year, and I’ve learnt a stack of vocab from it in that time.

I’ve found the following apps brilliant in ‘foreign language mode’:

  • MyFitnessPal: a food intake / exercise diary app – vocab like ‘saturated fat’, ‘carbohydrates’ and ‘remaining calories’ is now indelibly etched on my brain!
  • Runtastic Push-Ups: a great coaching programme that takes you from 2-3 push-ups to 250 over time. It will bark instructions at you, sergeant-style, in several languages, and provide Rocky-style inspirational quotes. Also check out runtastic’s other coaching apps here.
  • Apple Health / Activity and Samsung Health apps: these are bundled with recent versions of each operating system, and are the default steps / health trackers. Switching your phone language means all your data becomes a learning opportunity!

For sure, there are lots more ways to combine learning with other areas of your life like this. It’s both time-efficient and fun. And it can create a more rounded approach to learning by including physical, kinaesthetic aspects. And, by embedding languages into things you already love, you’re more likely to keep learning.

 

Avoiding English can be hard in a very anglocentric world

The English trap: avoiding your native language abroad

It’s too easy to be lazy in an anglocentric world. It happens to the best language learners in the world: you come out with your best Deutsch / français / español on your trip, only to get the reply in English. GRR! – for a moment – before we give in to the easy option.

I’ve found that the trick to beating this is a bit of Bond-style subterfuge. This is one area of life where dishonesty can be the best policy, as you try to obliterate all traces of your original linguistic identity. Specifically, you need to eliminate any native-English intonation from your speech.

Easier said than done, admittedly. There are some quite large targets to hit, though, and here are some of the easiest to de-anglifying yourself on your language trip!

Down with diphthongs

In most varieties of English, vowel sounds clump together and are rarely pure. Just think of the word ‘too’. That ‘oo’ isn’t a straightforward, single sound, but for speakers of most varieties of English, contains at least two stages – the ‘oo’ followed by a glide down to what is almost a ‘w’ sound at the end. These kinds of multisound syllables are called diphthongs, and are very characteristic of English.

By contrast, languages like Spanish and Italian have much purer vowel sounds. Spanish  (you), for example, sounds much more clipped and singular than the homophone too.

So, when trying to disguise your English accent, be aware of your natural tendency to diphthongise. Keep your pronunciation clipped and terse, if that helps.

Have a back story

Sometimes, out-and-out fibbing is the only way. Be ready with a “sorry, I don’t speak English” to force the speaker to use the target language. Have a back story, if that helps – why don’t you speak English? Where are you actually from, if not from the UK / USA / Australia etc.? (Make sure it’s unlikely the speaker won’t also know the language of that country, else it could get pretty embarrassing.)

It’s an untruth, but see it as a little white lie that  might grab you some more language practice opportunity. And it might also prompt the speaker to switch back to a more careful, clear form of the target language to use with you (you poor non-English-speaker!).

English penalties

Can’t beat the temptation to switch? Then turn target language speaking into a game. Keep a tally of the times you give in and lapse into English each day. Go a step further and devise a list of penalties for hitting X/Y/Z digressions. Nothing too self-punishing, please – maybe buying dinner for your travel buddies or relinquishing control of the travel itinerary for a day. Keep it positive!

If all else fails – be honest

We’re not all cut out (or bothered) to be masters of disguise. You can always take the heart-on-your-sleeve option: simply explain why you don’t want to use English. You can prepare this in advance of your trip – just a few phrases will suffice, such as:

  • I’m learning X
  • I need to practise my X
  • Can we speak X?

Most of the time, you’ll also elicit some sympathy and a smile or two from the speaker, too. And who knows? You might even make friends.

You’ve paid a lot of hard-earnt cash for your chance to go abroad and speak. Protect that investment, by hook or by crook!